The Failure of the Odyssey and the Need for Hope

The Failure of the Odyssey and the Need for Hope September 2, 2019

We need hope, badly.

Is there hope for a happy ending in reality? Can a story begin “once up a time” and end “they lived happily ever after” really?

Christianity says that we are in a divine comedy: history ends in a wedding feast. The structure of the “fairy tale” (a Christian invention) reflects our deepest truth: history turns out well. Hope is a virtue and not a cheat.

This late Jewish and Christian truth defied Homeric religion’s hopelessness.

Homer*gave humanity two sublime epic poems. These works are so rich, careful, lovely, so sublime that the first line of the Iliad contains the whole: “Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles.” There are endless lessons to learn from the endless war before Troy in Iliad and the journey of the man of constant sorrows in Odyssey.

The Odyssey is the better story, but less true to its own cosmology. Iliad begins in a war that has gone on for years and ends in a funeral with the war still continuing. The gods do not help and death is doom. The gods are deathless and doomed to the boredom that comes from “going on” without the proper intellectual or personal resources. Meanwhile humans can live best we can, but death is coming and eternity as airy, insubstantial spirits.

There is no hope of a happy ending in Iliad. The gods cannot save themselves let alone us. Hope is a cheat.

The Odyssey is distinctly more cheerful. The hero makes it home after many sorrows. His youth is restored, his wife faithful, and his neighbors make peace with him. Wisdom is his mentor. All is well, seemingly, but the ending is a cheat. We have seen what will come for Odysseus and his Penelope when he talks to the ghosts of Hades. Achilles puts it succinctly: better any life than to be the greatest hero in Hades. Life after death is not life. The Odyssey ends in life, but death is coming.

Atheism in the ancient world was born out the horror of this theory of nature. Atheism gave an exit to the cosmos: there may not be life after death in atheism, but at least there is not endless gibbering with Homer’s ghosts. Nothingness is very attractive when you consider the Homeric alternative:  listening to Agamemnon complaining again, and again, about the foul murder his wife committed. Scratch reality in Homer and you get endless meaninglessness, so atheism is hopeful by comparison since atheism ends the futility.

Homer dared to write Iliad, but could not stand the end. We are given Odyssey and hope. The hope is a fraud, however. We are not, most of us, a hero like Odysseus, and even he is given at best a few decades reprieve. Hades is coming.

None of this is an argument that Christianity is true just because Christianity is more hopeful. However, Christian hope is consistent with Christian beliefs. A good God has the power to make things right in the end for all His children. The happy ending of the Odyssey is inconsistent with what we learn about the afterlife in the Odyssey!  

We must follow truth wherever the argument leads, but arguments are long. Hope is so needed, a longing of every human heart, so strong that Homer could not stop with Iliad. He went on an Odyssey, but not never found a single idea that really changed anything. Odysseus is doomed to die and that will be bad.

Christianity offers hope and claims hope is rational.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But God help us hope is worth a look. 

If Christianity can work, hope can work. We need hope badly.




*Whoever Homer is . . .

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